‘Development’: A visual story of shifting power

Leer esta historia en español.

The work of shifting power is fundamentally the work of changing our gaze. People act on how they see, and to change how we see, is to radically change how we act. By not exploring other forms of expressing, looking and creating, we’re limiting ourselves. 

The development space is fixated on the written word. We are inundated by a constant flow of reports, research papers, figures, strategic frameworks: ‘the literature’. Behind every new buzzword and piece of jargon is a faith that to change words is to change the world. 

Yet we keep coming back to the same sobering realization: concepts are not enough. Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely need to re-word a lot, challenge outlived vocabulary, and support the journey of reclaiming representation. But the enormous challenge of shifting stuffy power dynamics and dominant narratives asks us to go beyond changing how we talk, to changing how we see the world and how we act

“In the midst of such uncertainty and overlapping crises, we need artists like never before to help us reflect, creatively reimagine and bring to life a vision for radically better futures.”

During these two years of the Power Shifts project, the urgency of rethinking how we communicate has come up many many times. I have been frustrated by development communications that only speak in one way, to one particular audience and in one language (you can guess which one). There’s been clear ruptures with this narrow approach coming from young organizations and movement spaces, but the more old school organizations are struggling to keep up. Committing to ‘decolonizing’ our ideas begins with making knowledge accessible, plural, collaborative. It means constantly opening up to diverse formats as well.

So, here’s a question I’ve returned to: how can we de-center textual knowledge to help us deeply listen to, and communicate, stories of change, structural injustice, and transformative practice?

I don’t have precise answers, but I wanted to approach this challenge from a place of play and creative collaboration. In particular, I wanted to reach out to visual artists to find new ways of building bridges across formats. In the midst of such uncertainty and overlapping crises, we need artists like never before to help us reflect, creatively reimagine, and bring to life a vision for radically better futures.

The result of this collaboration is our very own Virtual Gallery for Shifting Power, an initiative with two artists that aimed to capture the lessons and teachings cultivated over the two years of the Power Shifts project.

For this first exhibit, called “‘Development’: a visual story of shifting power”, I collaborated with Colombian collage artist Hansel Obando. Together, we wanted to tell the story of ‘development’, from its origin to its current challenge, from its contradictions to its possible horizons. Our guiding principles were the twin notions of decolonization and intersectionality: moving away from the unequal power structures that reinforce legacies of colonialism, and advancing explicitly anti-racist and feminist agendas.

Following these principles, through our collaboration we challenged each other to leave behind tired language and imagery. Collage, the medium that Hansel works with, can be seen as a metaphor for the practice of re-making and re-assembling our world. It allows us to clearly grasp what stories are – assemblages of fragments – and what storytelling is: a work of careful piecing together.

We invite you to take a look at the visual story below. It’s a small step, but hopefully it can inspire more bridge-building and critical thinking. These images are published under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. So please go ahead and download, print and share them everywhere! Show them to your colleagues, plan a session to go through them together as a way to structure a conversation about ‘shifting power’, or dig deeper into a selection of images. (Just remember to please credit/tag Hansel Obando and María Faciolince when using them.)

Illustrations: Hansel Obando
Curation/writing: María Faciolince

“Development”: a single-lens dream that calls for universal progress. A linear gaze that looks forward, but narrows our visions. An industry built on the bold promise of ‘doing good’, that casts an uncertain shadow.
A one-size-fits-all notion of prosperity based on modernity and trickle-down growth. A system built on colonial foundations that recreate power and poverty.
The horizon lines of development are the proxies of progress: metrics, classifications, growth rates. What distinguishes ‘developed’ from ‘under-developed’, the West vs. the Rest.
But rankings are not realities, and development is not justice. For those reasons, compounded by overlapping crises, this model has long been contested by a multitude of groups and communities.
The strength of bottom-up demands and a weakening of aid dependency have taken the sector to a turning point. Today, it is called to cut the ties of colonial legacies, address problems at their root and open up the horizons of prosperity.
This shift requires flipping the foundations: universality gives way to plurality, power is named rather than silenced, care and repair regain the place held by abstract economic values.
It’s not starting from scratch - it’s building upon practices and ideas that have flourished in the cracks of crises. Redefining development means challenging how we know, how we work, how we relate, how we divide resources, and how we think.
This process starts by questioning expertise and whose knowledge counts. We are asked to decentralize the authority of certain voices and formats, and open the doors to diverse ways of knowing. Who is defining what progress looks like?
Redefining development means shaking up our working cultures to build collective power rather than hierarchical structures, commit to anti-racism and feminist leadership, and center care in our organizations.
Shifting power requires visibilizing and valuing the care work of relationship-building. A more relational vision of development values equitable partnerships between accomplices, rather than transactions between ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘donors’, and builds safe spaces to collaborate with trust.
Power shifts are inconceivable without a redistribution of resources. Allowing funds to flow more flexibly in communities, with transparency and accountability, asks us to abandon the strictures of top-down agendas and disconnected bureaucracies.
Overall, opening up our horizons for development means thinking in systems: coming to terms with the non-linear complexity of social change, smashing siloes to work at the intersections, and trusting more in emergence than in the illusion of control.
What emerges when outlived paradigms fall? What opens up when collective care, justice, and intersectional leadership draw new horizon lines? The path to development can give way to a pluriverse where diverse futures thrive.

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31 Responses to “‘Development’: A visual story of shifting power”
  1. Karen Shook

    What beautiful and inspiring work – images and words – by Hansel Obando. I am sure they will be shared widely. Thank you, Maria, for bringing them to us.

    • Maria Faciolince

      Hi Barbara, thank you for resonating and for sharing! Really appreciate the support. I hope more of this (and many more different things as well) can continue happening.

  2. SF

    Tons of jargon, super hard to understand surrounded by some beautiful imagery. If this is an attempt to rethink how to communicate…. please, think again.

    • Maria Faciolince

      Hi Silva, as laid out in the blog this resource is one step towards a different direction – not an end point (which doesn’t exist either). It is aimed at a sector that still rarely listens to – or pays attention to – what it cannot understand. So much creative, silo-smashing work is happening but stays in the margins, or is de-valued as decorative “nice imagery” as opposed to powerful narrative tools. So if you’re working on radically different ways of communicating led by similar principles, please do share so we can all learn along. It’d be nice to have a collaborative disposition in this journey. I’m especially interested in how we can shift processes and formats in program evaluation. Thank you!

      • SF

        I understand the efforts. But, really, words like “paradigm, emergence, non linearity…” and the whole super conceptual writing are not helping at all. I wish that development at some point detox from the use of too many hollow words. Words we believe we understand. But then, so what? There are tons of attempts at using visual, drawing, cartooning. And also in the voices of people, rather than in jargon. The issue is that if the starting point is to convey abstract messages, they will always remain hollow, even if you put some nice color on them. Could the people represented in these collages understand what is written? If not, who are we drawing with and for?

    • Maria Cecilia Martina

      It is exactly the clear, precise and beautiful and jargon used here, that the powerful message communicated through this series reaches ALL audiences. Aesthetics and academia, clear purpose and commitment are brilliantly brought together through this work.
      Congratulations Maria!!
      This is the type of (collaborative) communication we were lacking.

  3. Dan

    Disappointing that efforts aimed at improving communications and making them more diverse and inclusive have resulted in outputs that are inaccessible to many. It’s 2021, surely adding alt-text and image descriptions for the visually-impaired should be the default, especially when the handwritten style of the text will mean that even some people who don’t typically rely on screenreaders will struggle to read some of the text. That also includes those whose first language isn’t English: I get that all the spelling mistakes have been left in to make it seem authentically ‘messy’ and grassroots, but I’m not sure how much it helps people who aren’t fluent.
    In fact, as it stands, I see these images only appealing to those working in INGOs in the Anglophone ‘global north’ who want something unchallenging to share on social media, since without the contextual background the first image or two seem likely to merely alienate those working in non-Anglophone CSO/CBOs who have learned the word ‘development’ to describe what they’re doing and are now being bluntly told it means something else.

    • Maria Faciolince

      Hi Dan B,

      I welcome your first point on mages being inaccessible to people with visual impairment – the images have alt text of the quotes. I do take issue with your other points, however, so I have taken the time to reply with some thought.

      This visual story was actually written in Spanish (our mother tongue), responding to demands from networks inside and outside of this sector to help shape the language. Creating these images across different languages, without external editors etc, means we didn’t spot those sparse spelling mistakes. For us, English isn’t our first language either. I’m confused why you think this was an attempt to perform ‘grassroots messiness’ when they were spelling errors, which are being corrected/updated as we speak. The original Spanish version comes out tomorrow.

      As for your final point, I’m also puzzled: who taught ‘people working in non-Anglophone CSOs’ that they are ‘doing development’ in the first place? Is your assessment of the piece that we’re telling people what development is/isn’t? The whole point here (which is mentioned many times) is that there are indeed plural ways of ‘developing’ – steering away from what was taught and imposed on many of us as a linear trajectory towards progress. What your comment assumes is a monolith of development workers in non-Anglophone countries that have passively absorbed what was imported. Development does mean something else to a lot of people – there have always been other ways of seeing, doing, and thriving in well-being. Perhaps it’s time to realize this.

      This is one tool, one step, towards strengthening this plurality – not a seminal piece for Development Studies (as stated in the blog). And just as a final reminder: these images follow 2 years of work on elevating critical voices and non aid-led stories of change through the Power Shifts project. These were the main points taken by an array of voices, social change ‘actors’ and ‘experts’. We’re not striving for perfection here, but I do hope we can all listen better.

      • AM

        The irony of us talking about decolonising thought and practice whilst spelling mistakes are assumed to be ‘messy’ and ‘grassroots’ rather than simple error.

        I mean … you can only laugh.

  4. Mayumi Fuchi

    These are such beautiful images with critical messages about our sector – I am blown away by your illustrations and articulation! Thank you Hansel and Maria.

  5. This is truly one of the most beautiful and inspiring outpouring that I have seen in a while. Thank you, Hansel Obando and María Faciolince for sharing your brilliance with us. Are these images compiled into one PDF or something of the like? Selfishly, I would like to be able to have all of these images in one place to be able to revert back to them again and again. They are so grounding, so thanks again.

  6. David Booth

    Fascinating as the art work may be, the premise of this exercise: “The work of shifting power is fundamentally the work of changing our gaze” is seriously untrue. Power structures are not the product of perceptions; they are a matter of material relations among people. Why is this reversion to philosophical idealism so fashionable?

    • Daniel

      Curious to see how you see the reversion to the philosophical idealism in the piece given that the visual story consistently talks about material relations and changes (ie. ‘Powershifts are inconceivable without a redistribution of resources’), and highlights the concrete impacts that outdated ideas in development have had on communities around the world. It’s not a simplistic either/or as your comment suggests – inequalities in material relations between people arise in part because of ideas, mentalities and ideologies. The development sector is overdue an internal questioning – that’s not a fancy philosophical exericse, but a necessary material shift.

  7. David Booth

    I question the premise, nothing else. The premise says power shifts are *fundamentally* about changing the “gaze” — which in the post-everything jargon means perception/discourse. It doesn’t say “in part”. That is as close as a definition of the idealist view of the world as it is possible to get. Hegel in modern garb (by way of postmodernism).

    • Daniel

      Think that confining it to simple ‘perception/discourse’ is reductive, and also misrepresents much of the research and theory around gazes in development – which very explicitly deal with the material impacts of ideologies and colonial legacies in the development space. Take Robtel Neajai Pailey’s article in ‘Development & Change’ on the ‘white gaze of development’: ‘In this article, I have illustrated how development is about negotiating poverty and power, and how this feat is not confined to the so-called globalSouth. Whether we work as scholars, policy makers or practitioners, ourexperiences of and encounters with development are inevitably fashionedby race. If we say we are committed to ‘opening up development’, we must acknowledge race as foundational to this field. Until we can come up with a new lexicon that recognizes the dignity and humanity of people of colour inthe so-called global North and South, development will always suffer from a ‘white gaze’ problem.’

  8. Louise Morrisette Moody

    The images take my breath away. I will devote time to the study of them. In order to squeeze every bit of influence on my way of seeing.

  9. Clara

    Such a magical and powerful piece! We are collective queering dev language and disrupting the system aroung grantmaking and international cooperation. Thanks for the inspiration Maria and Hansel <3

  10. Lyn Morgain

    This is just such beautiful and powerful work I can only imagine how many will be moved to a changed place after spending time with it. Thank you for visioning and creating such profoundly inspiring work. Recognising the injustice that underlies the dominant narrative practise and perspective, mean this art making is revolutionary work. Thank you.

    Also yes so much written words we at Oxfam have… I am a lover of words but I too think we often miss other knowledge and ways of knowing.

  11. Dear colleagues,
    Thank you very much for these!! … I really believe that we development practitioners, advisors … need such inspirational presentations. .. I often read Robert Chambers (the ”undisputed dean of participatory development…”), who also introduce some poetry, like the following:
    You are old Father William, the young man said,
    And your hair has become very white.
    And yet you incessantly stand on you head —
    Do you think, at your age, it is right
    (Chambers, R (1993): Challenging the Professions)
    Getaneh (getanehg2002@yahoo.com)

  12. Dear Duncan… thank you for this!!.. Yes of course Chambers also acknowledged (in the book I mentioned above) that this is from a book titled ALICE IN WONDERLAND (by Lewis Carroll)… Sorry that I didn’t mention this…. Thank you again